on 17 January 2008
This original classic 1975 Russian film The Irony of Fate needs to be sharply distinguished from the 2007 sequel by the same name, which is not worthy to be compared with this original classic. This original 1975 Irony of Fate is a marvelous classic Soviet film which cannot be recommended highly enough. It offers us an interesting commentary about the reality of Soviet life in the 1970's. Although the film never entertained any lofty presumptions, it has become one of the handful of truly classic films produced by the Soviet Union's vast cinematic machine. The film is aired on television every New Year and it remains one of the most popular films in the former USSR to this day.
As the film opens, we are informed that this is "an absolutely unlikely story that probably could never happen, except on New Year's Eve." We learn that Soviet pre-fab apartment buildings (the "kruschevkas") have made every Soviet city identical to every other Soviet city, right down to street names and the locks on the doors. The lead character of the story is a Moscow doctor named Zhenya (Andrey Myagkov), who just moved into a new Moscow apartment with his mother. Zhenya hints to his fiancé that he is about to pop the question to her that night, on New Year's Eve, at long last.
A bit later in the day Zhenya's friends visit his apartment and persuade him to meet them down at the local bath house. (This is apparently an old New Year's Eve tradition with the men, even though now all of them have private bathrooms in their apartments.) At the public bath Zhenya reluctantly accepts a glass of vodka, and one glass leads to another, once Zhenya's friends realize there is wedding to be announced (a toast to Zhenya, a toast to the bride, etc., etc.)
In short order all of the men in the bathhouse become very drunk. They then make their way to the airport, as one of the group is supposed to catch a plane from Moscow to St. Petersburg. But by the time the plane is ready for boarding the men are now so drunk that most of them (including Zhenya) are passed out in the airport lounge. The few members of the group who are still-conscious now cannot remember which one of them was supposed to go to St. Petersburg. They conclude it must be Zhenya, since he is the one getting married, and they push him onto the plane.
Zhenya awakes in the lounge of the airport in St. Petersburg and he still thinks he's in the Moscow airport. He stumbles outside and hails a cab. He gives the driver his address (which also happens to be a street name in St. Petersburg), and hilarity ensues.
When Zhenya arrives "home" he calls for his mother. When no one answers he lets himself in and immediately goes to bed to sleep it off. The apartment in every way resembles his apartment back home in Moscow. There are even boxes on the floor, as Zhenya and his mother only just moved into their new flat. (This is the film's commentary on the sameness of the kruschevkas, the Soviet-era pre-fab housing units built in the 50's and 60's.)
After some time the apartment's real owner, a beautiful young woman named Nadya, returns home with an armload of last-minute holiday purchases. You can imagine Nadya's surprise when she finds an apparant "bum" passed out in her apartment. She eventually succeeds in waking Zhenya only to discover that he is blind drunk. Zhenya calls out for his mother and he demands to know why this strange woman is disturbing him in his bed. After some time they show each other their passports and the mistake is realized.
Nadya demands that the now-fast-sobering but still-hung-over Zhenya leave her flat at once, since she is expecting the arrival of her fiancé at any minute, to see in the New Year. But Zhenya says "where can I go?" (It seems he has no money and no friends in St. Petersburg.) Nadya's fiancé arrives and immediately becomes jealous and storms out, not believing the implausible story of how Zhenya came to be in Nadya's apartment (Though he'll be back again several times, as we shall see.)
For his part Zhenya tries to call back to Moscow to try to explain to his fiancé what he is doing in the apartment of a strange woman in St. Petersburg when he was supposed to be with her in Moscow. She also becomes jealous and does not believe Zhenya's story.
The charm of the film is how the initial revulsion that the main characters have for each other slowly turns into a realization that they might be right for each other. Neither one of them is involved in an ideal relationship with their respective fiancé. The film offers the hope that somewhere "out there" there is the perfect partner for every person, which is his or her destiny.
The story originally aired in 2 parts on Soviet television on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in 1975/76. Originally Soviet Censors did not want to air the film, as they felt it condoned public drunkenness. But they relented when the film's writer/director, Eldar Ryazanov agreed to appear on-air before the film to explain to the audience that this film does not condone drinking, that this was something that could only happen on New Year's Eve, etc. (We learn about this from the writer/director's commentary on the DVD version.)
On its first night The Irony of Fate became the highest rated television film ever to air in the USSR. This began a tradition in the USSR of showing the film every New Year. That tradition continues to this day in all parts of the former Soviet Union. Brezhnev himself loved the film and congratulated the writer/director, Eldar Ryazanov. Brezhnev phoned the film's director Ryazanov and wanted to know why this film was only released on TV and not in theaters (as Ryazanov originally wanted). After that, the director of the Soviet cinema complex actually obtained the film and released it in Soviet theaters. (So Irony is a made-for-TV film that worked its way onto Soviet cinema screens, instead of the usual other way around.)
The film has a simplicity and charm that is hard to describe. It offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of Soviet citizens in the 1970's USSR. Anyone who wishes to believe that Soviet life could only be dull, gray and unhappy will probably want to avoid this film.
The "New" (2007) Version of Irony of Fate
Now, as far as the "new" version of the film The Irony of Fate is concerned, I've heard mixed reviews of that film. First, it was only released in theaters of the former USSR. The films producers have announced that the film will not air on television for at least the first 2 years. Most reviews that I've seen have remarked on the slick production and how this film seems to be a strictly-for-profit-only venture.
Of course the original version remains incredibly popular in the former Soviet Union to this day. The producers of the new version are trying to capitalize on that popularity by releasing this new sequel (after 33 years). The new version purports to tell us what happened with the original film's main characters. (Supposedly they never married but each went back to their original betrothed.) But as all of the original actors are now dead, this story is only told through their children, as they discover old photos and slowly draw the story out.
To tell the truth I have not seen the new film and I really have no desire to see it, even as much as I am a fan of the 1975 original. There is simply no way a 2007 slick Russian commercial production could hold a candle to the charming Soviet original. It could only take away and detract from the original.
I believe that Eldar Ryazanov, the director/co-writer of the original 1975 version said the same thing: he is flattered that someone would copy his film, and he is not opposed to the effort, but he has no plans to see the new film.
I have noticed how most recent Russian releases totally resemble American cinema (except that the dialog is in Russian.) Now we see the slick "production values" of American films, such as overdoing the special effects; overly sappy and overly-sentimental characters and story lines. I suppose in technical terms Russian cinema is today better than it ever was. But modern films cannot be compared to the Soviet-era classics from Mosfilm and Lenninfilm, which portrayed the innocence and charm of everyday Soviet life, and which better represented true cinematic art, then the let's-make-a-fast-buck productions we see today.
Perhaps as the new film eventually makes its way to DVD release I won't be able to resist the temptation. I don't know. But now I still think it is a travesty that someone would try to do a "remake" or "sequel" of such a classic film, and I know many of the citizens of the former USSR will agree with me that this sequel is pure sacrilege. It would be impossible to recreate the original film unless you could also recreate the social and political conditions under which that film was made, which is of course quite impossible now.